We’ve interviewed or reviewed near enough every member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as they’ve stopped in Liverpool during solo jaunts. One topic always comes up: why hasn’t The Boss played in the city? We’re determined to get him. With that in mind, and once we noticed a Liverpool playright and author who we admire was hitting ‘Springsteen On Broadway’, we asked for some words. We got someone’s heart and soul instead. By Ian Salmon.
The Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway is smaller than you expect. You expect it to be small, based on your limited knowledge of London’s West End theatres and your understandings of the venues of ‘The Great White Way’, but it’s smaller than that. Tonight, it contains magic. It thinks it contains the explanation of a magic trick, but it contains genuine magic. It contains faith and hope and heartbreak and a prayer and an explanation and magic.
You walk two blocks up from the gaudy gorgeous glitter of Times Square and take a left onto West 47th Street. The avenues go up the island, the streets go across, East changes to West at 5th Avenue, there is no 4th Avenue, and Manhattan’s easier to get to grips with than you think. It’s also bigger, while being smaller, easier to get around and containing more worlds. It’s everything you’ve seen in the films, everything you expect to see, everything you want to see and far, far more. So is ‘Springsteen On Broadway’.
First things first, here’s what tonight is not: it’s not a gig. Although it is. It’s not a book reading. Although it is. It’s not a recitation, an explanation or a demonstration. Although it’s all of those and claims to be all of those. It’s not an E Street Band show – but their spirit will be very much there. Audience involvement is neither wanted, needed nor asked for… until the moment that it is, at which point it’s glorious, heartbreaking and right. What it is, is this: theatre… it’s very definitely theatre.
You know what it is from the first seconds. “DNA” says Springsteen and you know straight away, if you’ve read ‘Born To Run’, that you’re in the book, that the night will exist in some part within the pages of the book. He explains, as those of us who’ve read it already know, the things that you’ll need if you ever happen to find yourself in front of 80,000 people wanting to be entertained. He’s going to explain this to nine hundred and fifty of us. We are going to watch this from row P… thirty feet from the man on stage.
The town he comes from is a boardwalk town, he tells us; a town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So, he explains, is he. All those songs of the working man, all those hot rod jockeys, all those outlaws? They were never him. He was a guitar player, he’d never had a five day a week job. Until this. Until now. As he tells us this, he’s picking at the guitar that he was carrying as he walked out. He’s picking the chords that open ‘Growin’ Up’ and he’s talking about his early life and demonstrating it. The first two verses pass and we’re into a breakdown – and we all know how the breakdown to ‘Growin’ Up’ works, we’ve heard it a million times on bootlegs, it was one of the tracks on the live box set that opened me up to Springsteen in the first place; there’s a story, we know we’re getting a story. But this is different: it’s the book now, but it’s not the book; it’s a life story being told honestly onstage and no description covers how different this is, how honest, how open, how entrancing.
He’s right there and he’s telling you about himself. You know the songs, you may have read the words, but when you put the two together and they’re put together by that guy right there they become magic. He’s told us that he’s going to show us his magic trick and to do that he’s pulling us right inside. Springsteen switches from guitar to piano to guitar to piano, but it’s not an acoustic gig – the instruments are acoustic, you’re so close, so intimate that he can walk away from the mic and still be heard perfectly, still hold the entire audience, still tell the story. But it’s not an acoustic gig, not like the acoustic gigs you’ve heard. It’s something completely else.
The description of the tree outside his house, the street he lived in, the family around him; leads into a ‘My Hometown’ that takes on new layers. That the protagonist of that song is thirty five and now roughly half the age of the singer adds depth to how far in the past that song lives. There’s a lot about age here tonight, a lot about passing time, a lot that we’ve lived during the lives of these songs, during the span of this man’s work. And there are relationships. There’s something of every important relationship in any single individual’s life. His youthful issues and conflicts with, the depression suffered by his father (and later himself) slide into ‘My Father’s House’ with the first sign of the stark harmonica that decorated ‘Nebraska’, while ‘The Wish’ contains all that he feels about his mother and the gift of a guitar at Christmas that brought about an entire life. It’s a guitar that he couldn’t play, a guitar that had to return to the store. But before it did: he posed with it, he danced with it, he thrashed at it. He didn’t play it, he couldn’t play it. And the pose is the pose we’ve seen a million times, legs sliding into a split, arm raised. The dance is the dance that sees the guitar clasped close to his body, the curve of the body at his chest, the neck extending upward, the feet shuffling in a Spanish style. It’s the dance at the heart of so many live versions of ‘Rosalita’ and it’s extended back to his childhood and forward to now.
We’re chronological and he’s talking about leaving home, about being out in the world for the first time, of having nothing and of how great it is just to be free and young and always leaving something and he strums the first chord and I’m already in tears: “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways… “ and it’s ‘Thunder Road’ (obviously ‘Thunder Road’), but it’s more ‘Thunder Road’ than you’ve ever heard. It may be more song than you’ve ever heard, too; it’s perfect and pure. Audience participation is neither wanted nor needed nor appropriate; the usual roaring of key points doesn’t exist but you can feel the soft whispering of the entire room at every second of the song. It’s unbearably beautiful. It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win.
Youthful adventure leads to the quest for success and driving through the night, New Jersey to San Francisco, three days, three nights, by a man who writes about cars but had never driven. It’s the moment that he learned what the rest of America was, it’s the moment that he learned to believe in ‘The Promised Land’. And we jump. Chronology stops and we become thematic – it’s 1980 and it’s an LA hotel and it’s a meeting with Ron Kovic. The leap is important because the leap to 1980 is about what it was to be in 1970 and to see your friends going away and some of them not coming back and what you do to not go yourself. It’s a story of how he, Mad Dog and Danny were drafted on the same day and of how all three made sure that they failed that draft and celebrated failing that draft but being left with one question: “Who went in my place? Because somebody did. Somebody did.” You can read that. You can read that here or in his book. But to hear it said out loud, by the man who’s thinking it, who’s thought it for years, who lost friends in Vietnam and has no idea if somebody else dies in his place? The ‘Born In The USA’ that follows is primal and savage. It’s the real ‘Born In The USA’ and it would leave nobody in any doubt about what the song means.
He moves to the piano and plays soft chords as he talks; they’re the chords from ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ and the story he’s telling is that of how you put a band together, of how you need the right people, how you need the chemistry. He’s talking about Clarence Clemons. Obviously he’s talking about Clarence. This is about how the story that they told as they stood together onstage was bigger than the two of them, but it’s also about how big the ‘Big Man’ was. It’s about losing somebody elemental from your life. The words are from the book. Which, those of us who’ve read it know, means that they’re the words that he used at the funeral. And he’s playing. All the time he’s talking, all the time he’s confiding, he’s playing. And when he says that “… losing Clarence was like losing the rain”, the sudden silence at the piano is stark. And then it’s “they made the change uptown and the Big Man joined the band” and the stagecraft comes into play. There’s the cheer… but the cheer’s not big enough. The left hand raises, he wants it louder. It’s still not loud enough. The left hand again, the left hand again, until the roar is the roar that’s needed, that’s deserved. There’s one more thing he wants from us. One more moment from the gigs that we’re used to. He wants this song dedicated to Clarence and also to “the legendary… ” we know our role, we know our job here is to echo this back to show that we know. The roar of E. STREET. BAND. is as massive as 950 people can muster. Yes, there were tears. Again.
My partner doesn’t know what’s coming next. I do. I’d wrestled with the idea of telling her this would be happening, knew how much this was going to mean. I’d chosen not to. It was the right choice… Bruce is talking about love, talking about finding the right person, the soul mate. And Patti Scialfa walks out. This is enough for Jeanette, she hadn’t seen this coming. There’s more to come. There’s a video that Jeanette loves – it’s a thirty year younger Bruce and Patti at the start of their public relationship duetting on ‘Tougher Than The Rest’; it’s a dedication to what they’re going to be, about overcoming obstacles to set up your life together. Tonight, on this stage, at this piano, it’s a dedication to what your life has been, to the obstacles that you overcame to keep going. It’s full of the mistakes that you make, the decisions you make. It’s full of lives. The lives of the two onstage, the lives of the audience. ‘Brilliant Disguise’ follows as an acoustic guitar duet at the centre stage with delicious harmonies and interplay, carrying on the theme of love and how we deal with our errors and then we move from love to politics.
“There’s a lot been happening in this country over the last year, a lot that I’m not happy with.” Bruce’s words, not mine. We’d met a lovely bloke on our first night, drinking in the Playwright’s Tavern, a construction worker in his fifties called James, a guy that we took to right away. He’d seen Springsteen once; likes his music but didn’t like the amount of politics that he put into the show. Springsteen has been about the politics for a very, very long time; the politics of the ordinary man, the politics of hope and aspiration, of the expectance that everyone can live a decent life. The politics of proper socialism. The fact that he can reflect on the current state of his country, once gain being led by an idiot, with ‘Long Walk Home’, a song he wrote to reflect the destructive tenure of the younger and stupider of the Bush family is appallingly appropriate. His country isn’t what he wants it to be, what he knows it could have been.
The next moment is political, spiritual, human, heartbreaking, resolute and resilient. To see ‘The Rising’ delivered on a stage in Uptown Manhattan the day after you travelled Downtown to see the utterly beautiful memorial to those lost on September 11 2001, to see the white roses resting in the carved names denoting that person’s birthday, to have that in your mind while Bruce sings of a struggle upwards, of a passing, of life as we know it pulling like a catfish on the end of a line while illuminated on an otherwise pitch black stage by twin spotlights from either wing with the refrain of “dream of life” meaning more than you’ve ever realised before? That’s something else. That’s transcendental.
There’s a lightness that follows; there’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ moving almost unnoticed into ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ and we’ve covered the despair of fame and the hope of the spiritual. And the last note of ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ sees the audience genuinely leap as one to their feet. It’s spontaneous and right and an acknowledgement that, if this was a gig, then all that follows would be the encore. What follows is the encore and the entire point. It’s a valediction, it’s a benediction. It’s a tale of how, after he lost his father, he drove back to his old neighbourhood. It’s a return to his childhood, it’s a return to where we started the night. The tree that he remembered as a boy is no longer there, but he can still see it, can still feel it, can sense its branches outlined against the stars. And, as he sits, as he reflects, as he looks at his old neighbourhood, his Catholic upbringing comes back to him, a catechism comes to him: “Our father who art in heaven… “ it begins and continues as we know it with slight diversions until he hits the line he means most: “… give us this day, just give us this day… “.
This is the key, this is what the evening is about, this is what his life’s work is about. This is what life itself is about; his, ours, everybody’s: the past is always with us, it never leaves. Those that we left behind, the friends who went to Vietnam and didn’t return, Clarence, Danny Federici, his father; they’re always there. They’re always there just reaching out for us, trying to find us once again. And then he plays ‘Born To Run’. As we always knew he would.
There’s applause, there’s rapture, the photos that we had all been told could not be taken at any point in the night are taken, David Crosby walks past me and then we take that short walk from our theatre seats to the dark street and the two of us look at each other and we have no words other than that we have no words. That long drive that you have after a show where you melt back into the normal? We don’t have that. Our hotel and its fabulously welcoming bar is on West 47th Street (the avenues go up, the streets go across), we stumble, emotionally and physically drained by everything we’ve just experienced, through the neon heart of New York to seats where we can cradle cocktails. After all, if you can’t drink cocktails in Manhattan, the home of the cocktail, where can you? And we talk about what we’ve seen. We attempt comparisons. There are none. There’s nothing like this. We’re shell-shocked. No show has ever made either of us feel like this. We count the number of times we cried, we talk about the humour that he filled the night with and we work on what it meant. Jeanette says “you need to write about this” and I say there’s nothing I can say that could possibly sum this up. I could say ‘you had to be there’, but that’s too small. I could say it’s the best show I’ve ever seen… but I say that all the time. I can never say that about anything else.
This wasn’t a show, this wasn’t a gig, a set, a concert. This was definitely theatre, but at the same time, it quite definitely wasn’t. This was like nothing else. This was life. In every possible aspect, this was life. There genuinely are no words. The night’s busting open.
*These words were first published on ‘Mumbling into the void’
Those Two Weeks by Ian Salmon
Unity Theatre, Hope Place, Liverpool
February 28th – March 3rd 2018
Pic by Rob DeMartin